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Dawson Island


"I felt like the protagonist of one of those World War II movies. When we arrived at the camp, some of us cried to see so many wire fences. There were 27. It was difficult to believe."
(Baldovino Gomez, Dawson Island prisoner cited in Analisis #289, 1989)

Location: In the Magellan Straits in the extreme south of Chile, 100 kilometers south of Punta Arenas. Dawson Island was used as a concentration camp for the Selknam (Ona) and other native people in the 19th century. In 1890, the Chilean government gave some Salesian missionaries from Italy a 20-year concession to Dawson Island to educate, care for and adapt indigenous people.

Duration: from immediately after the military coup of September 11, 1973 until October 1974.

Prisoners: About 30 important political figures involved in Salvador Allende's overthrown Popular Unity (UP) government were sent to Dawson Island following the coup, alongside some 200 prisoners from the local area. Among the UP prisoners were Orlando Letelier, Jose Toha, Christian Democrat Senator Sergio Bitar, and former Mining Minister Benjamin Teplinsky.

Conditions: Dawson, a 2,000 square kilometer tract of land, had a capacity for 1,500 prisoners. According to the Red Cross International, on September 29, 1973, there were 99 political prisoners held in Dawson. Other accounts say the number of prisoners reached 400 at its peak, divided in four barracks with 100 prisoners each. Members of the Popular Unity government were kept separate from the rest of the prisoners. The prisoners were made to perform military marches and formations, do exercises and were subjected to forced labor. Their labor consisted of installing 16 kilometers of telephone posts and wires, loading boulders into trucks, road-cleaning, digging canals, carrying gravel-filled bags at a trot and collecting decomposing ferns, used for fertilizer, from a muddy swamp.

"On october 10th, 1973, he was sitting in an organic chemistry class at the university, when a group of civilians entered, shouting his name. "i stood up, i answered, that's me, and i thought to myself, my turn's come... "
(Read excerpt from "After the First Death: A Journey Through Chile Time Mind" by Lake Sagaris, Toronto, 1996)


Mock executions and general harrasment of prisoners was common at Dawson Island. There were three categories of cells. In level one, the prisoner was allowed clothing and blankets, in level two, there were no blankets and in level three, the prisoner was denied both clothing and blankets.

Prisoners were allowed no communication with family members, except in the form of standard pre-printed forms in which they filled in the blanks. By this means, prisoners sometimes received letters and packages from their loved ones, though these were rigurously censored.

They washed themselves in a canal with sewage water and the food and sleeping barracks were inadequate.

There was a strong sense of solidarity and internal organization among the Dawson Island prisoners. Former prisoners tell how in their "free time" they organized sports activities, theater and study groups. They even operated a clandestine radio in which they tuned in to Moscow Radio and were able to steal meat meant for the camp's military personnel and distribute it among the prisoners.

When the camp was shut down in October 1974, the prisoners were transferred to the Punta Arenas prison and some were released. The Popular Unity politicians were transferred to Santiago detention centers in June 1974.


Other important detention centers in the Magellan and Antarctic region:
(from Rettig report)

In the Magallanes region, torture was regularly practiced in detention centers. An estimated 1,000 (from the region) people were arbitrarily deprived of their liberty and submitted to torture in 1973. In some centers, prisoners were forced to pay for their food.

Former Naval Hospital of Punta Arenas. Known as the "Palace of Smiles," it was used by the Military Intelligence Service (SIM), which interrogated detainees brought from other detention centers.

"Pudeto" Motorized Infantry Regiment No. 10 in Punta Arenas. According to Red Cross International reports, on September 28, 1973, there were 119 political prisoners in this compound, of which five were held incomunicado. The prisoners were held in the camp's gymnasium, which measured 25 x 40 x 4 meters and slept on bleacher benches 80 cm wide. Heating was inadequate, each prisoner was given two blankets. Hygiene was acceptable and treatment and discipline normal.

"General René Schneider" Armed Battalion No. 5, currently the Armed Cavalry Regiment No. 6 "Dragons". On September 30, it held five detainees, joined later by more, mostly women.

Destacamento de Infantería de Marina No. 4 "Cochrane." On December 13, there were 85 prisoners here, 20 of which were minors. Prisoners were held in a barrack measuring 25 x 15 x 14 meters and slept in 84 double bunkbeds with few bedsheets. Inside the barrack there was a can for urinating; the latrines were ouside. The site was humid and cold, ... the prisoners had to eat standing up. The prisoners, as in other detention centers, complained of mistreatment, which was visibly evident according to qualified witness reports. The Military Intelligence Service (SIM) agents abused prisoners during interrogation.

Estadio Fiscal of Punta Arenas. This stadium was owned by the Air Force. On December 13, there were 38 prisoners lodged in the stadium's main building, located near the rear exit door. There were four chambers measuring 4.5 x 5 meters each.

Catalina Bay. Also the responsibility of the Air Force. Very few prisoners were kept there and only those considered most dangerous.


Other detention centers in the country:
Tejas Verdes||Colonia Dignidad||Quiriquina Island||Dawson Island|

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